In the Blink of an Eye
Wondered why you’re so tired after all that Zooming? Apparently, we don’t blink as much as we would in face-to-face, body-to-body encounter. Instead, we stare intensely at the screen, hoping to catch those subtle signals of approval and agreement, or love, or compassion – some sense of being truly present to one another, whether it be colleague, friend or loved one.
‘There they are!’ we tell ourselves, as we stare unblinking at the pixels that look so much like the one we hope to see. For a split second it is miraculous. Who needs to travel? Why bother to gather any more when we can do all of this from the comfort of our own homes? There they are – sitting on your desk, your coffee table, your bed! How much more intimate do we need this to be?
And yet, as more boxes containing familiar heads appear (then frequently disappear), and the now familiar chants of ‘you’re on mute!’ and ‘look at the top right hand corner of your screen!’ begin, a different reality dawns.
No hands reach out to help, comfort or greet.
Though our eyes tell us that they are right there, our bodies are left longing for familiar flesh, whether handshake, a comforting squeeze to the arm, or an embrace that speaks more of love than the entirety of Shakespeare’s sonnets (even if they are being read by Patrick Stewart!) The subtleties of side-long glances and shared jokes – those markers of intimacy – are disrupted, because who knows where to look on a screen of talking heads?
Before the bat bit the pangolin, and the pangolin infected the pig, and the human ate the pig, who then began a world-wide epidemic… or, if you prefer, before the virus was walked out of a top-secret lab on the bottom of someone’s shoe… we were already becoming addicted to lives lived online. Some live their ‘best Instagram life’; glossy pictures that leave out all the messiness of ‘real life’. Whereas others enjoy the rush of feeling politically or socially active because of that snarky reply to the Tweet that got their goat.
Some have argued that this continuing disconnection from the real in favour of the ‘perfect-virtual’, ‘virtue-signalling’ life is having a deleterious effect our mental health and our efforts to build community. At the same time as connecting us, these mediums disconnect us. Signals can be easily crossed, words misinterpreted. Harsh sentiments can be flung out into the universe without guilt or repercussion. A simulacra of intimacy cons us into giving trust where it has not been earned, and the proliferation of ‘information’ leaves us not knowing who is telling the truth.
In the Christian tradition, we are called to wholeness and truth. In prayer, unlike life online, we are called to bring all that we are to God. The whole messiness of life and love and brokenness and hope is caught up in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. His story was not a collage of Instagram moments… ‘and here’s my selfie with these fishermen guys who think I’m the best thing since boats were invented!’ A TikTok video of water, then wine, water, then wine. Instead, his story was one of intimate connections with some of the most unlikely of folks. His story engaged with the deep reality of our need for forgiveness, our need for human-divine connection and purpose. He wasn’t concerned with the optics of the cross, of apparent failure, but the need to communicate that nothing can separate us from the love that created us. Paul, in the Second letter to the Corinthians said:
Our unveiled gaze receives and reflects the brightness of God
until we are gradually turned into the image that we reflect.
There are so many images and voices coming at us from all over the Internet. Who do you listen to? Who do you trust? Who do you want to be like? Who do you want to become? We need to keep aware of these questions as we deal with the complexity of life lived online and the temptation to veil ourselves with perfection rather than truth. Because, in the blink of an eye, we will be formed by, and then reflect, the content we gaze upon.
Yet, in all this complexity, love will find a way. When we meet with friends for online dinner parties and quizzes, despite our ‘skin hunger’, love binds us together. And in our religious communities I think most of us are finding that when we gather to pray, to learn and to worship online, if our unblinking eyes can see, God is there, present in the midst of us.
The Rev’d Dr Sharon Jones
About The Rev. Dr. Sharon Jones
St Francis Hall
University of Birmingham
Birmingham, B15 2TT
Born in Liverpool, I was raised in a small new town in Lancashire. I began attending my local Anglican church when I was six years old where I sung in the choir until I left for university. After Studying for a degree in politics I became a youth and community worker at an inner city church in Liverpool. There, I began discerning my vocation to the priesthood… a process that would go on for no less than eight years! In the meantime I studied for a Masters in Theology and Religious Studies and, having been bitten by the research bug, went on to write a doctorate on the sacramental nature of narrative at the same time as teaching courses on everything from the history of Neo-Paganism to psychoanalytic readings of the Bible. After a grand total of eleven years studying and working in Higher Education, I finally gave in to the call to ordination and spent a further two years at Westcott House, training for the priesthood. I went from there to a curacy in Warwick, to being vicar of two parishes in Lancashire and finally back to my home within the academy as chaplain to the Community of St Luke at the University of Exeter. I’m now full time Anglican Chaplain to the University of Birmingham where I am also an occasional visiting lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.